Manchester United's Dutchman is more reliable while it is impossible to take your eyes off Liverpool's Uruguayan
The pantomime season is just about over, though anyone missing his fix of princely heroes and dastardly, hissable villains needs only to switch attention to the player-of-the-year contest or tune in to Sunday afternoon's matinée at Old Trafford, where Robin van Persie and Luis Suárez go head to head and no special effects will be required to guarantee drama.
The season's two outstanding performers have been dominating the headlines from day one, almost writing their own scripts. Suárez has carried a limping Liverpool into a position where they could bring in another striker in the January window. Asked a little unreasonably to be a one-man attacking force, he has responded with 19 goals where others might have sulked or agitated for a move, and many of his goals and assists have involved the sort of jaw-dropping brilliance that few other players could supply.
Exactly the same could be said of Van Persie's 20-goal tally and in addition to the sublime skill that saved Manchester United late on in the Cup at West Ham last weekend, the Dutch striker has rescued his side from so many unpromising situations that even Roberto Mancini recently admitted he is likely to make the difference between United and City this season. "He has changed the situation between the two clubs," the City manager said, arguing that United would not be seven points clear had his own pursuit of Van Persie last summer proved successful.
Perhaps Mancini should have turned his attention to Suárez instead if goals are an issue at City, because any player who can fill his boots with the current Liverpool side would find the sky the limit playing alongside David Silva and Sergio Agüero. Yet as his friend and Liverpool colleague Lucas Leiva says, adversity seems to have brought the best out of the Uruguayan. "There are lots of good strikers but Luis this season has been amazing," Lucas says. "The good thing about him is that he doesn't need others to help him to create chances because he creates on his own. That's what makes him special as a player and he's exactly the same in training every day. He doesn't like to lose and that's what makes him so successful."
Suárez at City or Liverpool in the title race would have made the player-of-the-year contest even more compelling. As it is, Van Persie is likely to sweep the awards because he is in a stronger team with a real chance of silverware, both at home and in the Champions League. There is another reason, of course. Many people would rather vote for Joey Barton in exile than Suárez. Van Persie is Mr Popular not only because he plays for the title favourites and is currently the leading scorer in England but because he does not bite opponents, celebrate missed penalties after being sent off for handling on the line, refuse to shake hands with Patrice Evra or any of the other mini-atrocities on Suárez's lengthy charge sheet.
According to his detractors, Suárez was at it again last week at Mansfield – courting controversy, that is, not necessarily cheating. Ludicrous as it may appear that the ESPN commentator Jon Champion should be the one to suffer most opprobrium when he was only trying to uphold the laws of the game, his phrasing was unfortunate. What Suárez did at Field Mill did not amount to the work of a cheat, because he did precisely nothing. The ball hit him, he scored off the rebound, the referee did not see anything wrong and no one put him right. With the score at 1-0, around 99 out of 100 professionals would have done exactly the same thing. Even the Mansfield manager accepted he would not have had a problem with one of his own players scoring in such a manner.
The work of a cheat would be deliberately leading with an arm in the manner of Diego Maradona against Peter Shilton, or surreptitiously using a hand to keep the ball in play prior to scoring, as Thierry Henry did against Ireland. Who regards Henry as a cheat now? Even Maradona is considered merely roguish. Suárez deserved the benefit of the doubt, though he is the last player to be afforded such a luxury. In his case the well of sympathy has run dry.
In some ways that is a pity, for since redeeming himself in many people's eyes with his comedy dive in front of David Moyes in the Merseyside derby in October, Suárez has largely kept his nose clean and demonstrated to non-believers just what a good player he is. Yes, he was probably in the wrong over Evra, though he has served his time for that. Yes, he is an irritating, interfering presence on the pitch who pushes referees and opponents to the limit but the game is crying out for characters and Suárez is one of the very few players who is so entertainingly watchable you could happily keep your eyes on him alone for the whole game. You would not quite say the same thing about Van Persie, for his is a more patient game based on making the right runs even when they do not come off and having the composure and poise to take advantage in an instant when they do. But what the two players have in common is the capacity to astonish.
In a week that saw Fifa's Ballon d'Or dream team drawn entirely from Spain (well, Barcelona and Real Madrid for the most part, plus Radamel Falcao of Atlético Madrid), English football should be glad of that. Think of England-based players good enough to break into that Fifa XI and Van Persie and Suárez are two of the first that come to mind, though the former has started to be regarded as a complete player only since his move to United in August, while the latter is still waiting for Champions League football at Liverpool.
"I don't think we fully appreciated everything Robin can do until he got here," Sir Alex Ferguson says. "I expected him to be an important signing for us, and he is proving to be just that, but you never know quite what you are going to get in a new player's first year. What we are getting at the moment, the quality of the goal against West Ham, for instance, is just unbelievable."
Eyebrows were raised when United paid £24m for a player close to his 29th birthday, though, as Ferguson points out a little testily, City paid the same amount for Samir Nasri without getting quite the return. "We wanted him badly: the money didn't matter in the end," Ferguson says. Ask the United manager about Liverpool's star player and he is understandably less effusive, yet there is no doubt he has been impressed by Suárez. Anybody would be.
"I'll be interested to see where Brendan Rodgers plays him now he's got [Daniel] Sturridge," Ferguson says. "I heard a report he was thinking of using him wide right. I hope he does that against us, the further away from goal the better. Personally I'd like to see him at right-back."
Joking apart, while Van Persie appears to have arrived at his ultimate destination, Suárez, four years younger, may still have a move to make if Liverpool fail to reclaim Champions League status. Despite all his previous, there are plenty of clubs in that bracket willing to make him an offer. Kenny Dalglish, who knows how these things work, claims Liverpool would miss Suárez more than United would miss Van Persie. It is a moot point – United have become so reliant on Van Persie of late that Wayne Rooney's absence hardly gets a mention – though in the end an irrelevance.
Van Persie is not going to be going anywhere. Suárez may be. Enjoy the pair of them on the same pitch while you can.